British exiles enjoy class of Bordeaux

His biggest complaint is the cost of employing other people; They started from scratch, and made mistakes
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In the heart of Bordeaux, where five of its great avenues join, is the Maison du Vin and the International Council of Bordeaux Wine, the co-ordinating body for the region's biggest export. Believe this if you will, but the person who represents this most French of industries to the outside world, is not French.

Her origins are Scottish, she was educated in England and she started her career in the US. Fiona Morrison, a straight-talking (in two languages) master of wine, is, as she describes herself to associates, "the flag carrier of Bordeaux wine".

She is also a pillar of the British community in Bordeaux, and held up as an example of the city's cosmopolitan character - would a foreigner even be considered for such a job in Paris? - and of the special affinity that exists between the British and Bordeaux.

More than 500 years after the city fell to the French and the English retreated across the Channel, many happily established Britons feel that 300 years of English rule (1154 to 1453) left their mark. The English are judged to have ruled with a light hand, encouraged trade and helped the city to a mercantile pre-eminence that it never completely lost.

Now, there are around 9,000 Britons resident in the area and many more who own second homes. Along with the hoteliers, the estate agents and the builders, there is an adviser to French motorways, a couple with a paper factory, a fertiliser dealer and a sturgeon farmer producing Aquitaine caviar. There are lawyers, musicians, translators and teachers, and a slew of financial and personnel consultants.

These include financial advisers like Rupert Holderness, who arrived 12 years ago for National Westminster Bank and stayed on when the bank pulled out. His wife is French, his son goes to a French state school. But it is the lifestyle that also keeps him in France. Would he return to the UK? He pauses, just long enough to imagine the London he left, and the commuting, and the career options. "No, I don't think I could."

Most of his business is with the British community, and extends well beyond the immediate Bordeaux region and that traditional British hunting ground, the Dordogne. Like many of the British business people, he has installed his office on one of the recent trading estates that ring Bordeaux.

His biggest complaint is the cost of employing other people. There is a secretarial pool for the block; employing full-time assistance is too expensive because of the charges employers must pay. Asked whether he would employ more people if the charges were lower, he insists: "Yes, no doubt about it."

Only some of the British residents are servicing the British community. At least six in the Bordeaux area are taking on the locals at their own game, with a degree of success, if not great financial reward. About 30km outside Bordeaux to the south, in a small settlement called Cerons, live Robert and Sue Watts, winemakers.

She was an investment consultant and amateur winemaker, he was a barrister, and 10 years ago - after their respective parents had died - they decided that on a "now or never" change of lifestyle. They toyed with the idea of Spain, but decided that if they were going in for wine, it had to be France and Bordeaux.

With the good offices of a local French vineyard owner, they found the Chateau du Seuil, a small, neat chateau with 2.5 hectares of vines that had been leased out to a neighbour. They started from scratch, buying all the equipment new, and making - as they admit - mistakes. Although Sue Watts speaks good French, she curses French bureaucracy, saying the goal posts, especially on employment regulations, seem to change just when you think everything has been clarified.

The business has grown. This year, their white Chateau du Seuil, estate bottled, won a special mention (one of 300 out of 20,000) in the prestigious Hachette Wine Guide - a real mark of acceptance in the very closed and established French wine world - and orders from the Cafe Flo organisation. But they reckon that there is still some way to go before their considerable investment starts to pay.

t Back in Bordeaux just now there is an air of expectation in the British community. Marks & Spencer are opening their first store here in 10 days' time.

The British are looking forward to buying what Fiona Morrison decorously called underwear; the Bordelais will be looking for conservatively styled cashmere and wool to match their bourgeois image.

Strange though it might seem, they are also looking forward to the food: breakfast cereals and tea, sandwiches, muffins and cakes.

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